Staying Productive: Things To Do When You’re Not Writing

Here’s a truth many of us find it hard to swallow (as I did for the longest time).

We can’t devote our lives to the sole pursuit of writing literary fiction.

Now when I say this, I don’t mean that writing literary fiction is not a feasible goal. It’s a hugely feasible goal. And it deserves a lot of your time, and it can and should be your top priority if you want to make a name as a writer. What I’m saying is, you need something else to turn to during the day – something that isn’t Netflix, Instagram scrolling or complaining to your friend/parent/partner about how the world doesn’t get you. For some, this could be your day job or other source of income. For others, this could be a secondary hobby that you pursue regularly and that feels rewarding. And in fact, I’d recommend having a hobby or hustle in addition to your income stream, simply because it’s healthy to have productive recreation in your daily life.

I used to be in corporate before I transitioned into freelance writing. To put it mildly, the corporate world didn’t work out for me. I did want to keep making money, though, so I donned the entrepreneurial hat and started building a freelance business. I did well for a while, but it still wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life. My chance to write fiction full-time came along a little later (courtesy my wonderfully supportive and generous boyfriend), and I’m currently making the most of that chance along with a little freelancing here and there. And for my own productive recreation I have two main activities – cooking and painting.

My fondness for cooking stemmed from my sojourn in Vienna as an exchange student, when eating out was too expensive and there were three grocery stores within walking distance of my student accommodation. After a quick bagel-and-cheese for breakfast and a cold sandwich bought at the campus cafe for lunch, I’d look forward to a hot, hearty dinner to warm me through the cold Vienna nights (in addition to several gallons of coffee). Sure, they were pretty much all of the pasta variety, but I found several different ways of jazzing up the humble spaghetti (hummus sauce with chicken and kale, anyone?) without spending a fortune, and had a ton of fun in the process. The next few years involved cooking occasionally, but I never really got back to experimenting with it until the Covid-19 lockdown. I had a partner to cook for (which is always a motivation) and a new healthy diet to follow, which spurred me on to create delicious balanced meals that combined both Indian recipes and international influences. We make sure to cook our own meals as much as possible, and it’s done wonders for our tummies (and our takeout bills).

The painting happened entirely by chance. We were looking to repurpose some Amazon boxes into bookshelves rather than buying new shelves, and I thought of buying some paint and decorating the boxes to make them look nicer. Somehow, I found myself enjoying the feel of a brush in my hand more than I’d imagined. So I bought some canvases and art supplies and voila! I was creating abstract art as though I’d been doing it all my life! I watched some YouTube videos for inspiration, but mostly I let my natural feel for colour, design and symmetry take over. I’m currently working on both small and large abstract paintings with different colour combinations. I’m taking it quite seriously, in fact, to the extent of planning to get prints of my nicer paintings and sell them online. Do I aim to be the next Picasso? Probably not. But it’s a pastime that keeps me positively and artistically engaged and I love it.

If you aren’t sure what to pick as your form of productive recreation, ask yourself – what’s something you enjoy doing enough to devote a couple hours to every day? It could be painting or drawing. It could be quilting. It could be dancing (I’d certainly love to do more of that). It could even be making travel plans for when this pandemic goes away. Anything that has a concrete outcome and keeps you happy is valid here.

And if you’re thinking ‘I don’t have enough time for that’? One thing I’ve learnt the hard way is that there’s always something else you can be doing with the time you can’t write/don’t feel like writing. Even if it’s something as simple as taking a walk, that’s twenty extra minutes of exercise you got in. To be clear, I don’t advocate working all the time – we need our rest too, and lots of it (doesn’t it feel sometimes like our very identities as writers are the most crushing burden?). But if we weigh up the hours we’re not working with the hours we’re actually resting, chances are there’s plenty of wasted time left over. And if we can divert at least some of that time towards picking up a new skill or practising a skill we already have, we’re creating a happier and more rounded life for ourselves – which will make us better writers too.

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